social work reflection

social work reflection


Decolonializing social work and incorporating traditional practices

Indigenous Social Work in Urban Centres

As described previously in this book, social work and Indigenous peoples in Canada have had a long and tumultuous history. Deconstruction of Western pedagogies that have driven practice, and acknowledgement that oppression still exists, are vital to the formation of alliances between the social work profession and Indigenous peoples (Tamburro, 2013).

Mental health and substance use issues continue to cause harm to Indigenous populations, and they cannot be addressed from a purely Westernized social work perspective.Historically, the lack of traditional Indigenous practices in mainstream social work has meant that the experiences of Indigenous clients have been neglected. Just as our understanding of mental health and substance use disorders has changed and grown, so too must our understanding of these issues change and grow within an Indigenous cultural context. Social work traces its origins back to Euro-Western beliefs about alleviating social issues within societies. A more flexible, integrative framework will allow the inclusion of practices deriving from non-social work frameworks. Integrating traditional beliefs and customs into social work practice can better address the challenges faced by Indigenous clients. Social work education must reflect a commitment to this evolving framework. By drawing from the perspectives of Elders, teachers, and community members, social work educators can incorporate a revised understanding of the oppression of Indigenous peoples into their everyday practice (Sinclair, 2004).

The experiences of Indigenous individuals living in urban settings often reveal frequent misconceptions, assumptions, discrimination, and racist attitudes directed toward them . The Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study (Environics Institute, 2010) found that 70 percent of Indigenous people living in urban centres felt negatively portrayed by non-Indigenous people. Assumptions on the part of social workers that are fueled by historical racist connotations invalidate the voices and experiences of clients, much to the detriment of their mental health and overall social and personal well-being. Assumptive beliefs—about Indigenous history, culture, and current challenges faced by Indigenous peoples—that are held by social workers and Canadian society at large can impede the recovery of Indigenous clients.

Despite the existence of Indigenous services in urban settings, interaction with non-Indigenous service providers is often unavoidable. Social work practitioners and educators have a responsibility to work with Indigenous communities to challenge colonial pedagogy within Canadian society as well as within day-to-day social work practice.

Storytelling is an especially effective media included in traditional practices, as determined by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers (Davis, 2014). Storytelling can lead to a deeper understanding of a client’s own experiences, a dispelling of Westernized notions of barriers confronting indigenous clients, and a rejection of pervasive racist ideologies. Storytelling enhances understanding of past experiences of oppression within a present-day context to help gain helpful insights into current challenges. In Theresa and Sarah’s story, a young woman gives voice to the painful aftermath of displacement from a rural to an urban setting by framing her experiences in the form of a personal narrative.

Framing experience through narrative

Theresa and Sarah’s Story…

Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous practitioners who work with Indigenous individuals and families living in an urban environment must respectfully refrain from making prior assumptions about their clients’ histories and lifestyles.

Theresa is a 52-year-old Indigenous woman who lives in Toronto, having moved there from a reserve in northwestern Ontario. Theresa has a 16-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter who both reside with her. Theresa’s 21-year-old daughter, Sarah, is living with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder type I and has struggled with alcohol dependency since adolescence. Sarah has an 18-month-old son, Jonah. Over the past several weeks, Theresa has become worried about Jonah’s well-being and has called Native Child and Family Services of Toronto for assistance. The case worker appointed to the family encourages Sarah to seek mental health counselling. Sarah consents to this plan and the case worker sets up an appointment for Sarah with a social worker who will help determine which services Sarah might need.

Sarah’s initial meeting with the social worker, Leah, does not go well. At one point, Leah makes unfavourable assumptive remarks about Sarah’s family history. Leah alludes to the probability that Sarah had an abusive home life, a family history of alcohol misuse, and drug use within her home. Upon hearing these presumptuous and erroneous remarks, Sarah becomes upset and attempts to explain that her problematic behaviours do not originate from within her family, but rather, were encouraged by her peers. At the same time, Sarah’s bipolar disorder symptoms were becoming worse. Leah is not fully convinced of this explanation, however, and persists with her line of questioning into Sarah’s presumed family pathology. Sarah becomes angry and abruptly leaves the session, believing that her experiences and feelings of vulnerability have been invalidated.

Theresa learns about this incident from Sarah and encourages her to meet with a different worker. Sarah finally agrees to do so on the condition that Theresa attend the intake session with her. Theresa and Sarah meet with a new social worker, Derrick, who begins the session by explaining that he wishes to establish a mutual contractual agreement based on client-centered practice. Derrick and Sarah agree that discussions revolving around Sarah’s mental health and substance use are to be the prime focus of Sarah’s sessions with Derrick—and not Sarah’s family history.

Derrick begins by asking Sarah to tell him about the current challenges she is facing in her relationships with family, friends, and others in her community. Sarah explains that her issues related to alcohol started within her social circle and not within her family. After moving to Toronto, Sarah began to drink to battle her bipolar symptoms, her feelings of alienation, and the racism she had experienced at school. She explained to Derrick that in the past, counsellors had made invaid assumptions about her substance use—but she is adamant that her dependency issues are not related to her First Nations heritage.

Derrick encourages Sarah to verbalize a narrative of her experiences with mental health challenges and substance use. He explains that her story does not need to follow a linear progression but rather can involve a recounting of her most difficult struggles and how she had managed at times to stabilize herself in ways that were empowering. Sarah narrates her experiences from her own perspective, looking to Theresa for verification of events, dates, and places about which her memory is somewhat unclear. As Sarah tells her story, Derrick engages only to acknowledge and validate Sarah’s narrative. Through storytelling, Theresa portrays for Derrick the stresses endured by the whole family after moving to Toronto. Separation from their family, friends, and community while attempting to adjust to life in a large city had proved challenging for everyone.

Since moving to Toronto, the family has felt stigmatized by expressions of assumptive beliefs about First Nations people. Derrick encourages both women to continue to attend counselling sessions together and to feel confident in voicing their own story, rather than having it told to them by others. Derrick recommends various support groups for First Nations families living in the city, and provides a referral to these programs for both Sarah and Theresa. Both women agree to return for further counselling, having been reassured that Derrick will formulate no prior assumptions about them based on stereotypes.

Creating a safe and respectful space in which clients are encouraged to tell their own stories can aid recovery.

Reflecting on Theresa and Sarah’s Story

1. Have you ever held an assumptive belief about a particular group in society? Elaborate on your answer.

2. Which key principles of effective social work practice with Indigenous persons does Derrick uphold?

3. Summarize the benefits of storytelling as a healing practice.


Community collaboration for northern well-being

Social Work with Remote Populations

Respectful social work practice in northern regions begins with an appreciation for a community’s members; their ways of life, culture, beliefs, and values; and the land that sustains them. While some social work positions in these regions are rotational—involving travel in and out of the community—most Indigenous communities prefer workers to live in, engage with, and become part of the community. Demonstrating a genuine commitment to and respect for the community is central to gaining trust, building relationships, and providing meaningful services.

Many northern communities are small, isolated, and accessible only by long, rough roads, snowmobiles, boats, and/or small planes. This isolation promotes a feeling of community closeness and self-reliance that is not found in large urban centres. For a social worker, however, it can lead to a blurring of personal and professional boundaries: your clients are also your store clerks, neighbours, colleagues, and witnesses to—or even part of—your social life. Furthermore, clients often have interpersonal relationships with each other—both positive and negative—and the social worker may be providing confidential, individual services to more than one member of a social group or may become privy to information about a client by way of gossip, word of mouth, or social media. Finally, social service networks in northern communities are smaller, requiring outside-the-box thinking, flexibility, and collaboration on the part of service providers.

Indigenous communities in northern regions are struggling to achieve holistic wellness in a context of unmet basic needs and current and historic traumas. Approaches to addressing this challenge are multi-faceted and unique to each community. They include political processes for self-government and Indigenous-controlled services; recreational and wellness activities, including sports, sewing, drumming, and singing; and advocacy for the development of infrastructure and employment opportunities. Approaches also include community-building events, such as feasts and celebrations, as well as cultural and land-based programs that include sweat lodges, land-based treatment centres, and hunting/fishing/gathering mentorship activities. Finally, intervention services include counselling, family welfare services, and therapeutic groups, such as support groups and healing circles—all involving many people, from youth to Elders.

Many communities express a desire for partnerships in their efforts to achieve change; they do not want outsiders to “come and fix things for them,” but rather to work alongside them, sharing knowledge, resources, and power in action. To become such partners, social workers entering northern communities can begin by engaging with community leaders, such as Elders, local service providers, the Chief, and the band council to learn about the strengths and needs of the community, its activities, services, and programs, and leaders’ perceptions of your role. A genuine openness to understanding the perspectives of others, from the outset, is critical to providing meaningful services. Social workers from outside a community must be open to collaborating in the processes of Indigenous empowerment for culturally congruent services and programming.

Programming and services evolve with changing personnel and community needs. Thus, keeping up to date can facilitate appropriate connections for clients. Sustained communication also enables the pooling of resources for optimal programming, such as inter-agency committees and action groups. Programming might include Community Freezer services, youth land-based programs, and detailed case planning for vulnerable individuals. As Mark’s story shows, clients are often willing to grant consent for social workers to engage with other services on their behalf.

Overcoming loss and sustaining hope

Mark’s Story…

Mark, aged 17, is from a small Indigenous community in northern Canada that is accessible only by plane. At the age of eight, Mark was removed from his parents’ care due to domestic violence and neglect, compounded by alcohol misuse. He now wishes to live with his parents again.

As there were no foster homes in his community, Mark was placed with a foster family in another town. For the next eight years, he lived in five foster homes in three different communities. Due to high airfares, he saw his parents only once or twice a year. At the age of 16, Mark was legally entitled to terminate child protection services, which he did, and he decided to return to live with his parents. Adjustment to living at home has proved challenging for Mark: his parents are drinking heavily and getting into fights; the only family income is biweekly social assistance payments, often spent on alcohol; and there is rarely food in the home. Nor is there telephone, television, or Internet.

Consistent with Mark’s cultural values, his extended family and friends help when they can, but they are struggling themselves. His paternal grandmother provides a home for her daughter and grandchildren and financial support to other family members. Mark often has meals at her house, but since she has only three bedrooms shared by seven people, he spends the night at his friends’ houses when his parents are drinking and fighting.

Despite his chaotic home life, Mark usually attends school. He uses marijuana occasionally and smokes cigarettes once in a while, but he has sworn never to drink. Up until last week, he was dating a girl named Alice who was a major support to him. Today, however, Mark finds out that Alice is dating someone new. Distressed by this loss, upset with his parents’ continued drinking, and feeling rejected for not having made the school hockey team, Mark posted on Facebook, “everythings wrong lifes not worth it.” His aunt saw the posting and called the local health clinic, believing Mark to be suicidal. The RCMP brought Mark into the local health clinic for a suicide assessment.

Jane has lived and worked in the community for a year as one of two mental health social workers at the health clinic. She provides services ranging from crisis intervention to one-on-one counselling to coordinating Elder circles. When Jane meets Mark, she notices his dejected affect, monosyllabic responses, and air of hopelessness and helplessness. Seeking positives, she learns that his closest friends are James and Alex and that his favourite teacher is Mr. Collins. Mark tells Jane that he really likes playing hockey, going hunting, and playing with his younger cousins. Unfortunately, he didn’t make the hockey team and he doesn’t get to go hunting because his family cannot afford it.

Jane starts thinking about supports available to Mark in his community. These include his family and friends, a community youth support group, youth camping trips that feature cultural activities, outreach services for youth, a youth cooking program, and youth recreational activities. Jane suggests that she and Mark create a plan together, first to help Mark recover a sense of hope and then to address his immediate safety concerns.

After a discussion with Mark, Jane telephones an Indigenous youth worker, who invites Mark to participate in the upcoming youth camping and hunting trip and regular sports nights. Mark agrees to attend if his friends will go, and the youth worker offers to help Mark train for sports teams. Mark also learns that there is a Community Freezer where he can get basic food supplies such as pasta, canned milk, or fish and game. Having a plan to address some basic survival needs helps reduce Mark’s anxiety level, and he and Jane then begin to develop an immediate safety plan.

With Mark’s consent, Jane invites his grandmother and his aunt to join the discussion. Because his parents are drinking, he will stay with his friend James that night and James’s mom will be told of the suicide concerns. The need for a consistent place to stay when his parents are drinking will be discussed at the next appointment. The people Mark identifies as being important supports to him will be invited to this appointment.

Mark’s mood improves steadily during the appointment. He has a safe place to stay that night and a follow-up appointment booked for the next day. Jane concludes that Mark is no longer at immediate risk of suicide. To be on the safe side, she checks in with her manager (who is based in a larger city centre) and she consults with the clinic’s nurse. James and his mom come to take Mark to their home, and Mark seems much calmer.

Helping young people in remote northern regions involves reaching out to the larger community.

Reflecting on Mark’s Story

1. The lack of adequate infrastructure in northern Indigenous communities negatively affects the social determinants of health (e.g., housing shortages, limited employment opportunities, barriers to education, high food costs). How does this impact Mark’s past, present, and future well-being?

2. In what ways does living in a small, isolated community impact the delivery of social services to individuals?

A Social Worker in the field…

Adolphus Cameron

Accepting responsibility for their own well-being and creating a history book have helped children and families in Adolphus Cameron’s community understand their trauma and move forward with their lives.

I am Executive Director for the Wabaseemoong Child Welfare Authority. The province of Ontario mandated Anishinaabe Abinoojii Family Services (AAFS)and we, in turn, work with AAFS. This arrangement is really a transfer of responsibility back to the community. It is the community that will build its own resources and then transfer that responsibility back to the kids, the parents, and the families. I think this transfer of responsibility brings back to the members of the community the dignity that they’ve lost [as a result of colonialism, the residential school system, and other past injustices].

For a long time, my goal as a social worker was always “helping, helping, helping” and I forgot that people are not just clients, but that they have responsibilities as well as rights. I learned from my grandkids, by just watching them. When I tried to help them, one of them said, “No, I have to learn!” and I knew he was right. He always found his own way. I thought that his self-sufficiency was great and I started using that example in my work. I knew that people had their own inner strengths and that they had to experience change from within.

So that’s the kind of approach I’m taking now. I’m just trying to facilitate. All of our messes come from what I would call prescribed ways of thinking and doing : “This is how you do it, this is how you help,” and I’m finding that we follow our processes and it justifies our actions—but it doesn’t really build that person or family up. And that’s where I’d like to go.

In my present work, I’m doing things in ways that differ from mainstream approaches. We’re creating a history book of what it was like before things changed in the community and what happened with the flooding, the mercury, the residential schools, the Children’s Aid Society, what was impacted, and who was impacted.

We’re finding out that there is a layered effect to the experience of trauma, harm, and injustice. The community members who were affected immediately by trauma understand where their frustrations, resentments, hatred, and anger come from. We’re now probably into the fifth or sixth generation of people who have experienced the same unsettling feelings but don’t understand why. They don’t realize that there was a system before this system came in, and that’s what we’re trying to revive—the old system that was based on responsibility.

When the Anishinaabe were hunting, there was no competition to see who the best hunter was. What they did was show each other how to become better because each of them relied on one another to feed the community, and each of them had to be as good as they could be. They all supported one another to help each other improve. Their goal was to make each other develop more fully, but it was not for themselves—it was so that others in the community could benefit. I can see something similar when my grandkids take their friends out into the wilderness with them instead of keeping it to themselves.

We had a conference a few days ago. A young man spoke and said, “I really want to go out and relearn all the things that our ancestors had, to go out in a canoe, to have an Elder tell me how to set up camp and what to look for, how to paddle properly, how to look after a fire.” He told us, “I was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and it’s not my fault. But I don’t want to be a victim or think of myself as a victim.” So some things are getting better, and I think it’s partly through young people reclaiming their Indigenous identity.

When I hear my grandkids pick up on an idea and get excited or hear about an idea and disagree with it, there’s no holding them back. It’s so free and so natural. I think that our younger people will carry that openness, that asking, that wanting to learn forward. It is a life-affirming process.

You have to go back into the past and you have to understand what happened, especially to yourself, as well what happened to our people. You need to understand what has happened to bring about changes, but also how to go back. The spirits are waiting and all the tools that are out there are waiting.

I was told, “You have such a pipe dream. It’s so way out there. You’re going to give up.” That was back in the 1980s when I was talking about reviving our own laws. Now it’s 2015 and we’re almost there. We’ve moved toward people talking about reclaiming our laws and actually little bits at a time are bringing them back. My pipe dream is everybody else’s pipe dream now.

[Hick, S. & Stokes, J. (2017). Social Work in Canada: An Introduction (4th ed.). Toronto, ON: Thompson Educational Publishing. p. 300-304.]

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